Everything That Rises Must Converge

SXSW 2000 Interactive Festival

Life Online: Confessional Websites and the Human Drama

Mod: Pamela Ribon (Pamie.com)

Steven Falk had a very big secret. The dark-haired Web designer with a biting wit and shielded eyes had a life that nobody around him -- certainly not his friends and especially not his mother -- knew anything about. The secret: He lives out his life on the Internet. Under a pseudonym, he posts tell-all diary entries and images, receives e-mail from strangers, allows the plot of his life to unfold for the masses. Then came SXSW.

"I finally had to tell a friend about [the site] because he was driving with me to Austin," Falk said at Sunday's panel on confessional Web sites.

The roundtable of like-minded Net exhibitionists smiled in self-recognition as Falk displayed one of the major eccentricities of living online -- he apparently wants the world to know him intimately, yet he clutches desperately to his anonymity. The roundtable discussion itself was a community confession of sorts, with participants revealing their live-flesh identities and, more interestingly, their psyches as they each showed off their own homemade Web sites and explained their motives for moving online: "This is the only way I could keep myself writing," said one participant. Smartly moderated by local confessor Pamela Ribon (http://www.pamie.com), the 15 or so participants grappled with the issues of defining and deifing one's self online. Many of these diarists have become celebrities in a secret sort of way -- Ribon, for example, has received kitschy shrines and candy in the mail from her fans. Often, though, the glamour of this celebrity is visibly coupled with loneliness and self-doubt. One 15-year-old diarist, for instance, announced that his logs were password-protected so that his family would never know his explicit emotions. "I am 15," his Web site reads. "I am not strong."

At one point in the discussion, an audience member revealed that he was a psychologist. "We are not crazy!" Ribon exclaimed, as the panelists broke into a nervous kind of laughter. And they certainly aren't. By using the monitor screen as a mirror of sorts, the diarists and exhibitionists have engaged a sizable audience over the world while learning about themselves as their lonely old dramas play out on the largest of stages.

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